I’d been deployed to Afghanistan for more than a year and my family was eagerly awaiting my return. My plane was ready to touch down and my family was awash with emotions; while they were excited with my return, they were also worried about how it would impact the routines they established while I was away.
Ever growing impatient for the plane to arrive, they truly wanted to get the dog and pony show over with and finally have me back home. It was my third combat tour in five years.
What they didn’t know, what none of us knew, was that this would be my final return. In my mind, I was a careerist. I’d been in for over nine years, was anticipating promotion to E-7 soon and looking forward to being halfway to my 20 year letter. My family knew the ins and outs of DEERS and Tricare. They could parse military speak just as well as anyone. We were all in it for the long haul.
So when a nagging cough I’d picked up proved to be a career ender, it was a shock for all of us. The docs at Darnell at Ft. Hood discovered the cough was the result of lung damage. It was a permanent injury and I was no longer military fit for service in the Army’s eyes. After nine years, my career was destroyed just shy of the half-way mark.
The next few years were a struggle. I had been so focused on my military career that I hadn’t created a plan B. I suddenly found myself in a civilian world I wasn’t prepared for armed with laden skills and qualifications the civilian world didn’t need, and lacking the skills it found valuable. It took years to overcome these difficulties. In truth, these were probably the hardest years my family faced, even considering all the deployments.
The monthly service disability check provided by the government wasn’t enough to feed, clothe, and house six people. Without marketable skills, it was difficult to find work capable of covering the gap.
My family learned to be extremely frugal when shopping for food. Clothing was often second hand store specials. Minor automotive repairs tended to get put off indefinitely and major repairs always wiped out what savings we had.
Eventually I managed to find a temporary contractor position and utilized my GI Bill to obtain a degree. I made connections, networked, and eventually landed a job sufficient to provide for our needs.
We finally got to a point where we could afford to eat well balanced meals again and we stopped worrying about the next breakdown. We settled down in a nice house on five acres, and begin learn to enjoy a civilian life after several years of struggling to get there.
Army or Marine, this is a story that, unfortunately, all too many military families face. Many hopes and dreams are tied up in a lifetime of military service and pride, plans which start and end in a uniform which comes with a lifetime of shopping at the Base Exchange.
How To Plan
Military spouses are a vital part of a service member’s life. They take care of the home front throughout the years of deployments and training; they’re the cause to fight for and the reason service members look forward to coming home.
If you are a military spouse, this is an important subject you can discuss with your military member. Talk to your spouse and create a Plan B or even a Plan C, even if your spouse is reluctant to discuss it. Make the plan, then act on it. Then if an unexpected career ender happens, you’re prepared. As a military spouse, you are just as vulnerable to the fiscal after effects of an injury as the service member.
No matter where you’re stationed, you have access to USAA Banking. They have a great smartphone app with photo deposit capability, along with an educational system built around the unique circumstances of the military family: Home Circle, Auto Circle and more. In fact, you don’t even need to be near a USAA bank, you can simply use any ATM to get cash, and USAA will reimburse those ATM fees up to $15 each month.
I highly suggest you open a savings account with a dedicated portion of each paycheck for the “What If” fund. Let it build up and don’t touch it. This fund can buy you time to discover your post-military life and obtain any necessary civilian training. If you don’t need it, you’ll still have a nice chunk of cash to start that long anticipated retirement with.
My wife and I failed to do this. Knowing what I do now, it was this bit of foolishness that hurt us. Had we set up such a fund and simply dedicated $200 a month to it, we would have had a buffer of over $20,000 when I left the service unexpectedly. Couple the savings with the disability payment, we could have lived comfortably for a few years while getting our feet back under us. Instead, what little savings we had vanished in only a few short months and we struggled.
The military provides Marines with several educational opportunities: GI Bill, CDET, and NCPACE to name a few. I highly recommend that servicemembers continue their educational goals while in service, so that if a “what if” incident occurs, then you’re either finished or that much closer to having it completed.
Military spouses, take time to focus on your own education as well. There are programs for you including MyCAA or STAP, or complete a degree or certification by using your spouses’ post-911 GI Bill. Take full advantage of these programs.
Sometimes an education may seem impossible with all the moves, credit transfers, transcripts and more. Fortunately the internet is almost tailor-made for military families. Many well respected and accredited institutions now offer degrees that are 100% online and can be tailored to fit your schedule and location.
The military teaches contingency plans. I highly recommend that your family start one today to be prepared in case of a career ending injury. I understand the anticipation of receiving the 20 year letter complete with decades of pride; those dreams accompanying a retirement blessed with health. But sometimes life doesn’t go as planned.
That’s why it is so important to have a plan in place that all family members have discussed and agreed upon, complete with a plan of action. Both parties in a marriage need to be prepared to enter the civilian working world at a moment’s notice. Please, do yourself a favor and plan for your future now.
James Hinton is a former U.S. Army NCO who now spends his time helping veterans adapt to the civilian world. He hangs his cavalry spurs in Idaho on his small hobby farm and four very scandalized army brat daughters.